between a good player and a great player can often come down their
ability to consistently show creativity under pressure – to be able to
move beyond tricks and flicks, to a new level of control which makes
them truly illusive. James Vaughan, expert in the area of creativity in
football, breaks down the subtle, instinctive characteristics that
separate the legends from the rest.
Imagine a player has just
received the ball from their goalkeeper and is attempting to play
forward (task) against a high press (football problem or challenge); how
many options can they see? It depends on many variables, including: the
movement of teammates (the playing model), the range of their passing
(their technical ability), their playing style and mindset (culturally
conditioned preferences) – the way they think.
In football, creative thinking
is a type of varying, unexpected and flexible decision-making, a kind of
player- specific tactical creativity. This tactical creativity can be
explained as the ability to see lots of solutions – wall passes, through
balls, scoops, bounce passes, chips, one-two’s, fakes, dribbles – to
specific in-game problems, such as breaking down a defensive
block, getting behind the back four or playing out under a high press.
creative thinking is a type of varying, unexpected and flexible
The more a player’s behaviour
varies from what is expected, or put another way, the more innovative,
unusual and unique their thinking is, the more options they have and the
more divergent their thinking. And it is from this divergent thinking
that we see creative behaviour arise.
Another type of
In contrast to the creative,
divergent thinking required while attacking, defending is all about
expert decision-making. This decision-making is characterised by
selecting the best tactical response to an opponent’s actions. Rather
than divergent thinking, convergent thinking is needed, which is the
ability to find the ideal solution to a given problem. A defender
takes all the available information – body shape, first touch, support
players, calculations of opposition time and space – and evaluates,
analyses and condenses this information to select what they believe is
the best decision.
In contrast, attackers aim to
keep as many options open as possible for as long as possible. Or
perhaps the best players make one option seem so obvious that the
opposition becomes certain this is the only option available – the
bluff. However, a good bluff requires a shared understanding of the
situation, an understanding of what is expected.
“I started off playing small sided, everything grew
from there… in the small confined spaces you had to find ways
out, different ways each time, predictability meant defeat” –
So what is expected? As a player moves out of defence with the ball
what would you expect them to do as the pressure builds, with the
opposition closing them down, and time and space dissolving? What if you
knew the player was British or Australian? Would your expectations be
different if they were from South America, Germany or Spain? Do we have
different expectations based on our understanding of these players,
their upbringings and their cultural preferences, even though we know
nothing more that their nationality or the continent of their
upbringing. How would your expectations differ if the player were
playing for West Ham or Everton? Who would play long and who would pass?
What do we know about the playing styles of these teams?
Imagine our player takes their first touch forward scanning as they
move, their second touch moves the ball right, facing a teammate on the
flank, weighing up the pass. All outward information – body shape, first
touch, scanning – suggest a pass wide, and so the opposition move
accordingly. Stalking their prey, they leave the pass open, waiting
patiently to spring the trap – they expect the pass wide. But more than
just expectation they are wanting, waiting, hoping to pounce on this
pass. The closest opposition players arc their run, herding our player
in possession and cutting off any retreat. The wide pass is fast
becoming her only option, the opposition sees it, and time is up – she
shapes to make the pass, hip opening, knee lifting and ankle locked…
The trap is sprung and the opposition move, not much but enough and
she’s seen it. Half way through executing the pass her decision changes,
at the last moment she morphs the movement pattern of the pass into a
pass-fake and launches forward, unexpectedly breaking the line with a
dribble. Within seconds she’s crossing the half way line and creating a
3v2 in the final third, she draws a defender and slides the ball left.
Continuing her forward run she receives a return pass for a tap-in at
the back post. It’s all over within a couple of seconds. She’s playing
futsal, and she’s experienced this in-game problem – playing out against
a high press – so often that she knew what the opposition were
expecting. She was confident in her ability to spring their trap and
escape. Like all great escape artists, she created an illusion,
directing her audience’s attention, patiently waiting for the moment of
her deception, knowing the longer she waited the more effective the
The Escape Artist
Learning new skills requires risks. If we have never attempted a
certain movement pattern (deceptive skill) in a game, we can’t know if
it will work, therefore there is element of risk. However, is it still a
risk if we have experienced similar situations and been successful?
Probably, but the risk is reduced. We need to experiment, we need trial
and error, we need to find out which technique works, and in which
situation, when to bluff , and how to link deceptive movements to
deceptive moments – this is the birthplace of creativity and skill.
The great escape artists like Harry Houdini would experiment,
learn and practise in safe environments (safe from bodily harm)
before ‘risking’ their lives on stage, and when performing the risk was
minimised through their practice and experimentation. Players also need
safe environments (physically, emotionally and psychologically safe) in
which to practice. They need time to refine their technique, before
using the combination of skill and deception to perform their illusion.
And this is key: players can be evasive, escaping tight situations and
they can be illusive, and it’s a subtle difference. Being evasive is a
reactive action, being illusive is proactive. For example, when Harry
Houdini is locked up and lowered into a Chinese water torture cell is he
reacting to an unexpected situation? Or is it part of an elaborate plan,
meticulously rehearsed and staged (pro-active)? Was he an escape artist
or an illusionist?
We don’t play football or futsal in a controlled environment – it’s
not a stage show – there are opposition players attempting to sabotage
our plans. Therefore varying, unusual and exible decision-making is
As the game changes our plans must evolve, and there must be room for
tactical creativity. However this isn’t the realm of the coach, as these
moments must be recognised and acted upon by the player.
What can coaches do?
It’s vital for coaches to encourage players to step outside of their
comfort zone and broaden their attention, perception and awareness.
The goal is to help facilitate decision making that is:
- Based on as much information as possible: sight, sound, feeling,
- As flexible as possible, able to change at any moment.
A growing consensus within creativity literature supports the view
that a wide breadth of attention (perceptional style or attentional
focus) is helpful for creative performance, whereas a narrow attentional
breadth has been shown to inhibit the perception and identification of
stimuli and information responsible for creative advances.
Researchers believe a wide breadth of attention makes it possible to
take on board and understand a variety
of stimuli that may initially appear irrelevant at novice or
intermediate levels but become essential at an expert level. For
example, I never learned to ‘check my shoulder’ as a young football
player, because firstly, I often didn’t need to – in my junior games I
had acres space and time – the task didn’t make this action necessary
and I was quick enough to cover up my mistakes. Secondly, my coaches
never drew my attention to this perceptual skill. I never learned to
value it and it never became a habit, and now I can’t learn it well
enough to execute it when I play at higher levels. Another example is
the use of the sole of the foot for instant control in futsal. Our job,
as coaches, is to make players aware of these habits and encourage them
to practice. But what type of practice?
Iniesta gives insight into the task, saying “In the small confined
spaces you had to find ways out, different ways each time,
predictability meant defeat”. We can manipulate the space, the ball
(football or futsal), and the surface
(grass, court, beach). Players must gain experience in high-pressure
situations, meaning they have limited time and space, requiring quick,
flexible and unusual decision-making. Situations where they are
outnumbered, where they have to dribble, experiment with deceptive
moments and link them to deceptive movement patterns – this is where we
learn to be illusive. Its no surprise that countries with a strong
background in futsal develop players with greater creativity.
The irony is that most young players experience high pressure, but
it’s not necessarily due to the task itself. Instead, it’s the
environment, the motivational climate: finals, trials and the need
impress or win. These external motivators kill young players’
motivation, players stop playing because they want to and start playing
because they feel they have to. At some point we stop playing and start